Across the U.S., Climate Change Lawsuits Are Gaining Steam
The scandal-plagued head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says he's not sure whether "human activity ... is a primary contributor to the global warming that we see." The president has moved to pull the U.S. out of the landmark Paris climate agreement. And climate-science deniers and skeptics control Congress.
But that still leaves environmental advocates with one branch of government: the judiciary.
Greens are trying to use the courts to establish accountability for the damages associated with global climate change; a couple of new lawsuits and one important court ruling from just the last week show that the strategy has real promise.
On Tuesday, the city of Boulder, Colorado, along with Boulder County and San Miguel County filed a lawsuit in state court against ExxonMobil and Suncor (Canada's largest oil firm), seeking to recover some of the costs associated with climate change impacts. The lawsuit says the Colorado communities are already bearing the costs of climate-change-related problems such as extreme rainstorms and flooding, more frequent and intense wildfires, and a declining snowpack. Big oil companies, the lawsuit contends, contributed to those impacts.
"By hiding what they knew about, and affirmatively misrepresenting the dangers of unabated fossil fuel use, the Defendants protected fossil fuel demand and obstructed the changes needed to prevent or at least minimize the impacts of climate change," according to the lawsuit.
The case is just the latest attempt to try to hold the major carbon polluters responsible for climate change impacts. Eight California cities and counties are suing a range of fossil fuel companies—ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell, BP and Peabody Coal, among others—for the costs of preparing for sea level rise. Last month, a federal judge in San Francisco who is handling four of those cases held an unprecedented climate tutorial that forced the major carbon polluters to admit in court that they accept the basic science of human-driven climate change. In January, New York City filed a similar case against the five largest publicly traded oil companies.
The Colorado case is a departure from earlier lawsuits, however; it doesn't, for obvious reasons, focus on sea level rise. "These communities felt it was important to highlight the fact that climate change impacts are being felt everywhere, including far from the oceans," Marco Simons, the general counsel at EarthRights International, which helped write the Colorado complaint, told Sierra. "This case shows that communities across the country are waking up to the reality, both the impacts they are facing from climate change and the responsibility of the fossil fuel industry to help pay for those injuries."
The new Colorado case is also significant in that it opens up yet another legal arena in which the oil companies must play defense.
The announcement of the Colorado lawsuit came just four days after the Massachusetts Supreme Court delivered a major setback to ExxonMobil in another climate-change-related case. Massachusetts's attorney general, Maura Healey, is investigating whether ExxonMobil may have violated the state's consumer protection law by misleading its customers and investors about the impacts of climate change. In a 32-page opinion, the state's highest court ruled that the case can move forward and that Healey has the authority to force ExxonMobil to deliver internal company documents. The justices appeared to go out of their way to highlight the high stakes involved in the case, writing, "The Attorney General's investigation concerns climate change caused by manmade greenhouse gas emissions—a distinctly modern threat that grows more serious with time, and the effects of which are already being felt in Massachusetts."
The state supreme court ruling comes about a month after a federal court made a similar ruling against ExxonMobil's attempts to beat back the Healey investigation and a parallel investigation by New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman into whether the oil giant might have misled investors about the risks of climate change. In that ruling, a U.S. district court judge slammed ExxonMobil's argument that it is the target of a conspiracy as "implausible."
The California, Colorado, and New York City lawsuits, along with the two attorneys general investigations, are all focused on holding corporations liable for some of the damage caused by climate change. Meanwhile, some other climate-related cases are seeking to hold governments accountable for fueling global warming.
On Monday, eight Florida youths ages 10 to 19 filed a lawsuit against the state government and Governor Rick Scott, who has been cagey about whether he accepts the basic science of climate change. The lawsuit alleges that by contributing to greenhouse gas emissions, the state's actions have violated the young plaintiffs' constitutional rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. In their complaint, the eight young people charge that, "the Defendants know that Plaintiffs are living under climatic conditions that create an unreasonable risk of harm but have not responded reasonably to this urgent crisis, and instead have affirmatively acted to exacerbate the climate crisis."
The lawsuit was brought by Our Children's Trust, which has sought to use a legal theory called the public trust doctrine to push similar cases in a total of nine states, including Washington, Oregon, Maine and North Carolina. Our Children's Trust is also behind the landmark case targeting the federal government for exacerbating global warming. The 21 young plaintiffs in that case cleared a major procedural hurdle in March when a federal appeals court denied the government's effort to dismiss the case. Just last week, a federal magistrate in Oregon set a trial date for that lawsuit: Arguments will begin Oct. 29 at the federal courthouse in Eugene.
Julia Olson, the lead attorney in that case, has promised that Juliana v. United States will be "the trial of the century."
It's a good line. But given the increasing flood of climate liability cases, it looks like there's stiff competition for that honor.
Reposted with permission from our media associate SIERRA Magazine.
This week marks the official start of fall, but longer nights and colder days can make it harder to spend time outdoors. Luckily, there are several inspiring environmental films that can be streamed at home.
1. Kiss the Ground<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ccc5f0c92a5603e68aec39e56b0db02a"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/K3-V1j-zMZw?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p><strong>Streaming On: Netflix</strong></p><p><strong>Premiere Date: Sept. 22</strong></p><p>Between <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/wildfires-california-washington-oregon-photos-2647585008.html" target="_self">wildfires devastating the U.S. West Coast</a> and <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tropical-storm-beta-landfall-2647760268.html" target="_self">storms battering the Gulf</a>, the impacts of the <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/climate-change/" target="_self">climate crisis</a> can feel overwhelming right now. <em><a href="https://kissthegroundmovie.com/" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">Kiss the Ground</a> </em>offers an alternative to all of the bad news by focusing on solutions.</p><p>The film, directed by Josh and Rebecca Tickell and narrated by Woody Harrelson, explains how we can heal the Earth through "regenerative agriculture," farming practices that draw carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and into soil as a way to restore soil health, which in turn boosts ecosystems and food supplies.</p><p>"<em>Kiss the Ground </em>shows how feasible it is to make these changes at a grassroots level immediately and make a truly substantive impact with low cost and easy to implement solutions," Executive Producer RJ Jain said in an email. "This is why I got involved."</p>
2. Public Trust: The Fight for America's Public Lands<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="5338f7a2931e356910026e5fd76fac56"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/jsKMTAaj_wQ?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p><strong>Streaming On: YouTube</strong></p><p><strong>Premiere Date: Sept. 25, 2 p.m. EDT </strong></p><p>This <a href="https://www.patagonia.com/films/public-trust/" target="_blank">award-winning documentary</a> tells the stories of Indigenous activists, journalists, whistleblowers and historians working to protect America's <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/public-lands" target="_self">public lands</a>. The film focuses on three political struggles: the shrinking of <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/bears-ears" target="_self">Bears Ears</a> National Monument in Utah, the mining of Boundary Waters Wilderness in Minnesota and the opening of the <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/Arctic-National-Wildlife-Refuge" target="_self">Arctic National Wildlife Refuge</a> to fossil fuel exploration.</p><p><em>Public Trust</em> was directed by David Garrett Byars and produced by Jeremy Rubingh. Patagonia Films, Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard and actor Robert Redford are executive producers. It will be <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OGjnIG7puzY" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">released</a> on YouTube in time for <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/national-public-lands-day-2640656776.html" target="_self">National Public Lands Day</a>.</p><p>"Our country is fortunate to have millions of acres of public lands, including National Parks, Monuments, Wildlife Refuges and Wilderness set aside for future generations," Redford said. "Sadly, these lands that belong to you and me are under unprecedented threats from the greed of big corporations, eager to weaken restrictions in the pursuit of profits. Many of our current politicians are also to blame. <em>Public Trust</em> tells the story of citizens who are fighting back. It's a much-needed wake-up call for all of us who want to preserve our unique and wild cultural heritage."</p>
3. David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="156438a30836a765d7a92982545fc334"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/B_OFZvAd05Y?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p><strong>Streaming On: Netflix</strong></p><p><strong>Premiere Date: Oct. 4</strong></p><p>Beloved nature broadcaster <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/David-Attenborough" target="_self">David Attenborough</a> has spent his career introducing viewers to the wonders of our planet. In recent years, his footage of albatrosses swallowing <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/plastics" target="_self">plastic</a> in <em>Blue Planet II</em> has been credited with <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/2018-fighting-plastic-waste-2624606566.html" target="_self">helping to ramp up</a> the global fight against plastic pollution. Now, in this <a href="https://www.wwf.org.uk/" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">World Wildlife Fund</a> (WWF)-produced <a href="https://www.attenborough.film/" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">documentary</a>, he reflects on the defining moments of his career and the devastating changes he has witnessed.</p><p><em>David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet,</em> which was also produced by Silverback Films and directed by Alastair Fothergill, Jonnie Hughes and Keith Scholey, features an intimate conversation between Attenborough and Sir Michael Palin as the broadcaster reflects on his life and a career that took him to every continent on Earth. In addition to streaming on Netflix, the movie will be available in select theaters starting Sept. 28.</p><p>"For decades, David has brought the natural world to the homes of audiences worldwide, but there has never been a more significant moment for him to share his own story and reflections," WWF executive producer Colin Butfield said in a <a href="https://www.wwf.org.uk/updates/david-attenborough-life-our-planet" target="_blank">statement</a>. "This film coincides with a monumental year for environmental action as world leaders make critical decisions on nature and climate. It sends a powerful message from the most inspiring and celebrated naturalist of our time."</p>
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If all the glaciers and ice caps on the planet melted, global sea level would rise by about 230 feet. That amount of water would flood nearly every coastal city around the world [source: U.S. Geological Survey]. Rising temperatures, melting arctic ice, drought, desertification and other catastrophic effects of climate change are not examples of future troubles — they are reality today. Climate change isn't just about the environment; its effects touch every part of our lives, from the stability of our governments and economies to our health and where we live.
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